THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a surreal, star-studded zombie comedy [review]

Commentary, Film and Television
The Dead Don”t Die feels like if Grant Wood had painted one of those pictures where iconic celebrities are inexplicably gathered in the same small-town diner.

Jim Jarmusch’s quirky zombie comedy boasts an impressive and eclectic cast, which includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover, Chloë Sevigny and many more. A lot of it feels like stunt casting, with characters playing on the established personas of the actors portraying them. Thus, Steve Buscemi is an annoying loudmouth with strong opinions about coffee; Iggy Pop hams it up as a shirtless rock-n-roll zombie; Tom Waits refashions his Ballad of Buster Scruggs gold rush victim into a modern-day hermit; and Tilda Swinton gets to play her strangest character yet, an otherworldly Scottish samurai who moonlights as a gossipy local undertaker. And you can tell Jarmusch relishes the shock value of beheading a former teen pop star.

That said, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t just coast off its A-list talent; rather, the mismatched, larger-than-life cast gives the film a surreal vibe. It’s like Twin Peaks with zombies.

This slow-burning pastiche isn’t your average zombie comedy, but there’s a lot for fans of the genre to sink their teeth into. The Dead Don’t Die references everything from Plan Nine from Outer Space to Night of the Living Dead and its less reverent spin-offs (in a scene that could be right out of Return of the Living Dead, a zombie attacks a motel owner while croaking out, “Free Cable”). The mood of small-town paranoia evokes Canadian cult film Pontypool, and there are shades of Shaun of the Dead and Fido in the zombies’s compulsions to re-enact their past habits.

Several of the characters seem to know exactly what movie they’re in. Towards the end, Bill Murray’s tired police chief confronts his young partner (Officer Ronnie, played by Adam Driver) about his premonitions of doom, to which Driver admits that “Jim” let him read the script.

“The whole script?” Murray yells, betrayed. “He only gave me our scenes.”

In an earlier scene, Chief Robertson hears country singer Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die” on the radio and wonders why it sounds so familiar. Ronnie guilelessly replies, “It’s the theme song.”

The song itself becomes somewhat of a running gag; I almost expected the end credits to be a We Are the World-esque singalong featuring the musicians in the cast (which, in addition to Pop and Waits, include rapper RZA as a wise parcel delivery man, Selena Gomez as a road-tripping hipster, and Simpson himself as a guitar-dragging zombie).

The Dead Don’t Die is at it’s best when it’s being offbeat. Some of Jarmusch’s attempts at broad comedy come off as contemptuous and don’t quite land (there’s a cringe-worthy conversation in which a cleaner name-drops Zelda Fitzgerald and refers to her as “great Gatsby’s wife”).

The subtler moments are better; the film’s biggest laugh comes when an intense-looking Officer Ronnie whizzes to a crime scene in a pint-sized red Smart Car. Later in the same scene, a distraught cop is directed to do “crowd control,” which consists of shooing away three people.

All in all, The Dead Don’t Die is a weird and witty horror pastiche that doesn’t just play with genre conventions, but tries to warp reality itself.

Title: The Dead Don’t Die
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Year: 2019

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